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JFK And Civil Rights: It's Complicated


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Fifty years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. It was one of those moments in history where, if you were old enough, you'd remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when you found out. If you've been paying attention to the media at all this week, then you've no doubt run across one or another retrospective.

We've decided, in this week of reflection, to try to understand more about the president's relationship with the civil rights movement. So we're going to turn now to Georgia congressman, John Lewis. He was the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. You might remember a conversation we had with him just a few months ago when we asked him to remember what it was like to have been the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in the summer of 1963. And the speakers were received at the White House later that day and he told us about it. Congressman Lewis, thank you so much for joining us once again.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS: Well, thank you very much. I'm delighted and pleased to join you.

MARTIN: Now when we last spoke with you, we talked about how you met President Kennedy in the summer of 1963 after the March on Washington. But before that, he gave this speech to the American people. I just want to play a short clip of it. And I'm sure you remember it. Here it is.


PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: Deep in America, because your skin is dark, you cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public. If he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want than - then who among us can be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?

MARTIN: So there's that, but there's also the fact that, you know, you reminded us that he was very skeptical of the March on Washington in 1963, and, in fact, was very much kind of hoping that it wouldn't happen. At least that's what the record sort of shows. So which of those images that we have of him do you think are closer to the truth? I mean, on the one hand, people see him as being a very exciting figure who advanced civil rights. Other people say he was very slow to the party, very slow to respond and could have done more. Which of those things is closer to the truth in your view?

LEWIS: I think the speech that President Kennedy made was forceful. He was the first president to say that the question of civil rights was a moral issue. He reminded us what it was like to be black or white in the American South, in that speech. I listened to every word of that speech. And later, I kept seeing him being concerned about whether he was going to have to run a campaign. And I think - I reflect on this sometimes - whether he was going to have to face Senator Goldwater the next year in 1964.

So he was very careful and very concerned, even when we met with him in June of 1963 and spoke at the March on Washington. He didn't like the idea of a march on Washington. He kept saying if you bring all these people to Washington won't there be violence and chaos and disorder - and we would never get a civil rights bill through the Congress? But after the March on Washington, that same day after the march was all over, he met with us. And he was just amazing. He was smiling. He was like a proud father. He kept saying, you did a good job, you did a good job. And when he got to Dr. King, he said and you had a dream. That was my last time seeing the president.

MARTIN: Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when the president was killed?

LEWIS: On November the 22, 1963, I was in Nashville, Tennessee, leaving Fisk University campus, riding in a car on the way to the airport to go to make a speech. And I heard on the radio that the president had been assassinated. I cried. We stopped the car. We listened to the report. And it was so sad. I saw President Kennedy as our hope because I believe with his brother Bobby Kennedy, he became convinced that he had to go all out and fight for civil rights, and put an end to the system of segregation and racial discrimination.

MARTIN: Do you remember thinking that the progress would stop after he died? Or did you feel - I mean, obviously it was such a shock, but do you remember when you had a chance to gather yourself and think about what it would mean, what did you think it would mean for the movement?

LEWIS: After President Kennedy was assassinated I kept thinking, and I believe for a period of time, that we had lost a friend. We had lost someone that was on our side. But a few days later, President Lyndon Johnson reassured us that we had a friend and a supporter in him. And that he told those of us that made up the so-called Big Six of the Civil Rights Movement that he would get the Civil Rights Act passed almost as a living memorial to President Kennedy. And he did it.

MARTIN: What would you like us to think about when we think about John F. Kennedy? I mean, this is a week when many people are kind of recalling their own personal memories and, you know, their documentaries and there have been and they're still revisiting, you know, all of the kind of details of his life. It's interesting, too, that this is - you know, his daughter has now presented her credentials to become ambassador to Japan and she has just started her post, it's interesting - the timing. What would you want us to think about when we think about him and his legacy?

LEWIS: We should think that this man, this one man, inspired an unbelievable new generation. But it was not just the young people, it was not just college students, not just those of us involved in the Civil Rights Movement. But he inspired young people, young men and women to give up the comfort of American life and go to work in unbelievable places in Central and South America, to go to Africa, to go to Asia as members of the Peace Corps.

And many people that volunteered to go into Peace Corps - my wife was inspired by President Kennedy to become a volunteer in Nigeria for two years - And many of the young journalists and teachers and scholars and elected officials that's served in places today, including foundation executives. They were inspired by President Kennedy to teach, to try to give something back, not just to our own country, but back to the world community. He must be looked upon as one who changed and inspired America forever. And also, I believed then and I believe now, that when President Kennedy was assassinated, when he died, something died in all of us.

MARTIN: That was Congressman John Lewis. He represents Georgia's 5th Congressional District and he was kind enough to take time out of his very busy schedule to join us from his office on Capitol Hill. Congressman Lewis, thank you so much for speaking with us to share these reflections.

LEWIS: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: For more perspective on President Kennedy's legacy and civil rights we turn now to the noted historian and Martin Luther King biographer, Clayborne Carson. Professor Carson, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

CLAYBORNE CARSON: Good to talk to you.

MARTIN: We just heard from Congressman John Lewis who said he felt that with the death of President Kennedy, the movement lost an important ally. But I'd like to ask you the same question I asked him, which is to go back before that. Before that, what did the civil rights leadership think of President Kennedy in that area?

CARSON: Well, I think the way Martin Luther King put it was that there were two John Kennedys. One he saw as vacillating during the first two years of his presidency. He had wanted him to introduce civil rights legislation. Kennedy was reluctant to do that and, in fact, refused to do that. Then he wanted him to at least try to achieve change through executive action and presidential orders. And I think John Kennedy wanted to do that. He talked during the campaign about - with the stroke of a pen he could eliminate discrimination in housing. And people started sending him pens because they didn't see the action once he became president.

So I think until that speech that Representative Lewis talked about in June of 1963, when he talked of civil rights as a moral issue - and that was a surprise. In fact, it was a surprise to some of the people in his own administration when he gave that speech.

MARTIN: Can I jump in for a minute? I just want to play a little bit more of it. And I am interested in what led him to make that speech, given that, just as you said, it was a surprise to some in his administration. Let me play a little bit more of it. Here it is.


KENNEDY: We preach freedom around the world and we mean it. And we cherish our freedom here at home. But are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other, that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes, that we have no second-class citizens, except Negroes, that we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race except with respect to Negroes?

MARTIN: So what led him to give that speech?

CARSON: Well, first of all, he felt challenged by Governor George Wallace in Alabama who was refusing to obey federal court orders about the desegregation of the University of Alabama. And this - coming after the Birmingham campaign, I think President Kennedy realized that there was this kind of resistance in the South that he wasn't going to be able to just mollify. He had to really, at some point, stand up for what he - I think in his heart he accepted the notion of civil rights reform, but just in his presidency wanted to focus on foreign-policy issues. He saw it as a distraction from the main goals of his administration.

So I think that when he finally made that decision, it was a sudden turnaround. And much of that speech - it's a very remarkable speech because some of it was extemporaneous. He was writing it right up to the point when he got sat down to deliver it to the nation. And it's remarkable how profound and well-crafted the speech is given that it was not something that he had spent weeks and weeks and had lots of speechwriters working on.

MARTIN: Was that in part what motivated his speech though because he was so interested in the world? Was he in part worried about the U.S. - the perception of the U.S. in the world as a result of the civil rights structure?

CARSON: I think he finally saw that the two issues - the Cold War that he was so interested in was being affected by race relations. That people around the world saw the police dogs and fire hoses that were being used in Birmingham, and that he simply could not avoid this issue anymore.

MARTIN: What ripple effects did - were there effects on the movement after Kennedy was killed?

CARSON: Oh, of course. But I think that the strength of the movement was such that they were - people like myself were in the streets by that time and I think that we were determined to get action on the civil rights issue. So I think that that pressure would've been forceful enough on any president to bring about some kind of reform or the country would've gone the way of South Africa, you know, where it didn't get resolved and it would've been a much more violent result. You know, I think that we sometimes assume that history turned out - had to turn out the way it did. But, you know, we could have followed another course. You know, there were other voices other than Martin Luther King. There was Malcolm X, there were the people - the young people who were very discontented and frustrated. And that frustration and discontent would've exploded.

When Martin Luther King came to visit, his last meeting with John Kennedy was after the church bombing in Birmingham, and he warned the president at that point. He said that if it hadn't been for leaders like myself who are arguing for nonviolence, this country would have the worst race riots that had ever been experienced in America. And I think it was a warning that kind of foretold some of what would happen in the mid-1960s. So I think that the forces that were demanding change and demanding freedom now, would have continued and escalated. And I think we are very fortunate that a president like Johnson recognized the rightness of the cause and was able to bring about these important reforms - the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - that really completed the task of overcoming the Southern Jim Crow system.

Now after that, there were still many sources of discrimination and segregation, de facto segregation, throughout the nation. And so the nation was still going to go through a very difficult time but it's - I don't think it doesn't - you know, we can imagine how much more difficult the mid-1960s would have been if we didn't have these basic pieces of civil rights legislation on the books before we got to the point when the Northern ghettos were exploding and we were facing, you know, the issue of segregation in the North. And, you know, that would have been even more explosive without those kinds of reforms.

MARTIN: That was professor Clayborne Carson. He's director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, a professor of history at Stanford University, a noted biographer of Martin Luther King, Jr. and a scholar of the civil rights movement. And he was kind enough to join us from the studios at Stanford. Professor Carson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CARSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.